Stories about Vancouver’s housing market often border on the absurd, and the latest seemingly tall tale fits that mould: Home prices have actually ticked higher during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The phenomenon is not limited to Vancouver. Prices of houses and condos in Toronto were also higher in May than they were in February. Vancouver, however, remains in its own hard-to-believe category. The benchmark price of a house on the city’s west side in May stood at $3-million. On the east side, it was $1.4-million. A typical west-side condo was $801,000 in May, and $595,000 on the east side.
The numbers underscore the entrenched problem of inflated housing costs in Canada’s biggest cities, where home ownership is out of reach for many, and for young Canadians in particular. Even if prices moderate over the next year as predicted, they will still be high.
Given this longstanding challenge, it’s difficult to understand why Vancouver city councillors want to dial back housing development.
In late May, council voted to look at “recalibrating” the city’s housing goals. The effort, led by a conservative councillor, is being justified by the belief Vancouver will require less housing, because the pandemic could lower future immigration. The motion suggested that an established target of 72,000 new homes should be more than halved, to 30,000. Support was unanimous, although Mayor Kennedy Stewart and one councillor abstained. City staff were asked to put together a report for July.
Council is moving in exactly the wrong direction.
In the 2010s, as the Vancouver housing market spiralled out of control, local and provincial leaders did little more than watch prices rise. Changes finally started to happen several years ago.
One was the previous city council’s 2017 Housing Vancouver strategy. It set the target to build 72,000 new homes within a decade. Among the laudable goals was for half of those homes to be affordable to households with incomes of $80,000 or less. Many of the homes were to be rentals, and roomy enough for families.
The program got off to a fairly good start but, after a new council was elected in late 2018, progress notably slowed. The city last year fell far short of annual goals for new rentals, social housing and condos.
This council, balanced between liberals and conservatives, has been skeptical of housing development since it took office. There has been some good news, such as support last year for a new rental housing policy and a recent streamlining of the onerous development process. The Mayor is also a positive force, but he is only one vote on a council that in general has favoured moving slower than faster. One of its first moves was to embark on a ponderous citywide plan that will not be finished until 2022.
With egregiously high home prices, many people in Vancouver have no other choice but to rent, also at high rates. This hurts the dynamism of the local economy. The worst thing is it’s a self-inflicted wound: The housing supply is artificially constrained by city policies that generally back the status quo over much-needed change.
Meanwhile, as council dithers, the usual opposition to new construction from existing owners is alive and well. The latest NIMBY fight is against a series of small towers on a high-volume transit route in wealthy Kerrisdale, where there are already numerous small towers.
For city council to now question Vancouver’s future population growth because of the pandemic is especially shortsighted. The pandemic will pass, and immigration – at historically high levels – will return.
Urban planning is about the future, not about the fears of the moment. Confident decisions made with long-term vision shape what we love about our cities today. In a previous era, there were proposals to ruin Vancouver’s downtown peninsula with an expressway. There was a similar idea to gut downtown Toronto with the Spadina expressway. Both were stopped – and we are better for it.
“Recalibrating” Vancouver’s urgent need for more housing based on temporary blips in immigration is foolish. To believe Vancouver suddenly needs less housing is just plain wrong. Council needs to let go of its worries and continue on the important and established path of the full Housing Vancouver strategy.
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